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Top Locales for Locavores

By Lavender June 4, 2010

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Keeping Midwest Dining Traditions Alive

Think globally, eat locally. Lately, ecoconscious diners have adopted this mantra to cut back on transportation fuel. Healthwise, it’s a boon, too, because when food is harvested close to home, preservatives aren’t needed. As a sociopolitical statement, it lends support to smaller, local producers, rather than vast agriconglomerates.

But the best reason to adopt the scheme is the one chefs have been touting for years: When it’s fresh and natural, food simply tastes better. Bonus: In this age of homogenized eating, locavores help keep the Midwest’s dining traditions alive. Grandma’s farm cooking is worth preserving, thanks to sweet corn, snap beans, fresh berries, and chickens sans hormones and preservatives, straight from their free-range days near the coop.

Here’s the cream of the crop of cafés presenting and preserving much of what the Midwest grows best.

Heartland’s Lenny Russo proudly was cooking local long before the movement had a name. Virtually everything on his homespun menu comes from the Midwest, from chilled asparagus-hazelnut soup to Fischer Farms pork croquettes, Wisconsin elk tartare, Money Creek Ranch’s wild boar, and Thousand Hills Cattle ribeye. Similar kitchens dedicated to regional fare also flourish at The Craftsman and Corner Table.

FireLake Executive Chef Paul Lynch, member of the Heartland Food Network, also is a big believer. Because the restaurant is the flagship of the Radisson chain, he’s able to introduce out-of-towners to treats like walleye and eggs for breakfast; Star Prairie, Wisconsin, trout with wild rice cakes; herb-battered sunfish; corn-crusted walleye; bass with summer succotash; and the season’s best strawberry shortcake.

Restaurant Alma and Brasa, both under Chef Alan Roberts’s rule, go so far as to thank individual local producers on their menus—starting with pork from Cottonwood, Minnesota, the most popular item at Brasa. Down the road at Alma, you’ll find fancier fare like smoked whitefish with watercress or wild nettle soufflé—and that’s just the starters.

Common Roots owner Danny Schwartzman uses flour from Swany Mills in Freeport, Minnesota, for his primo bagels, to slather with Wisconsin-made cream cheese, butter from Hope Creamery, or Ames honey—all born close to home. His veggies, eggs, cheese, chicken, and beef also come from nearby neighbors.

Lucia Watson, of the eponymous Lucia’s, prides herself on a menu that’s local and seasonal. She walks the talk as a board member of area co-ops. She supports garden projects of inner-city kids. Watson buys their greens to shine in salads that side her asparagus and gruyere tart, Hill & Vale lamb, and Hill Run Farm’s veal, which flavors the kitchen’s rich ragu.

Although The Dakota searches more widely for ingredients than in its primal, passionate youth, it’s still your source for cornmeal-crusted walleye cakes, Star Prairie trout, and Dakota Farms bison ribeye, plus an unbeatable strawberry-rhubarb shortcake for dessert—as well as Sebastian Joe’s ice cream, as local as heavenly gelato gets.

Speaking of bison, it’s something you won’t find in New York or LA, so fill up on the lean, healthy—and over-the-top tasty—protein here in Minnesota, where it was raised and grazed. Try French Meadow’s seasonal bison pot pie, where it mingles with black beans, onions, carrots, celery, and cabbage beneath a beyond-flaky crust. Back at Common Roots, when winter returns, watch for the bison/wild rice meatloaf, served with caramelized onion gravy, and worth wishing for subzero days (well, almost). Hell’s Kitchen does a dynamite bison Benedict, laced with a tangy tangerine-jalapeño hollandaise, and served atop multigrain toast points. Bison burgers sell well at The Bad Waitress, and also are on offer at Burger Joe’s.

Want to talk real Minnesotan? Then let’s talk about walleye, our revered state fish. Beyond FireLake, you’ll find it well-prepared at Normandy Kitchen, where it’s treated to an elegant potato-horseradish crust, and sent out atop spinach-brightened rice pilaf. You also will discover it given a swank swim through Indian spices at OM.

Walleye has been the signature fish dish at Rainbow for more than 20 years, too. Prepared Chinese-style, the whole fish is steamed gently; spritzed with soy sauce; dressed with green onions, ginger, and cilantro; and given a shot of hot cooking oil to crisp its delicate skin.

During summertime, Tin Fish, on the shore of Lake Calhoun, serves walleye (and more fresh fish—much more) in everything from fillet form to tacos. And if you’re over at the Sample Room, try the walleye strips, then linger for one of the kitchen’s panoply of housemade sausages. Can’t get much more local than that!

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